BRIEF has long taken the view that the Solution Focused approach can usefully be thought of as a craft, and as with any craft it is practice that makes perfect, or if not perfect at least more fluent and flexible. And so it is hardly surprising that on our training programmes there are lots of exercises, lots of opportunities to try out this very particular, this rather unusual perhaps, form of talking. Since I moved all of my training on-line, since lock-down in fact, I have been making more space for participants, in their break-out rooms after they have completed an exercise, to reflect on the process and on the experience both of the person ‘leading’ the conversation and of the person ‘responding’. When participants emerge from these discussions and share their thoughts with the whole group it is not unusual for the ‘conversation leaders’ to express concern that the process may have felt intrusive, that they were asking too many questions, that it felt uncomfortable for them. It is equally common for the ‘responder’ to say that the conversation felt in no way intrusive to them, indeed often commenting that they had enjoyed the process and sometimes even adding that they had found the 12-minute exercise useful. So what is going on here? I think that it may be that we can explain this discrepancy, this apparent gulf between the ‘leader’ and the ‘responder’ experience by thinking about the question of ‘intention’.
Questions in the worlds of psychology, psychiatry and even psychotherapy have generally been thought of as vehicles towards understanding, serving the worker in the developing of an understanding of the client, an understanding of ‘what is going on’ or perhaps ‘what is REALLY going on’. Workers are trying to figure their clients out, trying to understand them and the nature of the predicaments within which these clients find themselves. However in Solution Focused Brief Therapy there is no interest in understanding anything about the client, indeed there may even be some scepticism about the possibility of ever REALLY understanding what is REALLY going on. It is inevitably hugely risky to say this and saying it could so easily be misinterpreted and/or taken out of context but actually you could argue that the Solution Focused practitioner is not actually that interested in the client. Now let me hastily add that of course Solution Focused practitioners tend to be nice and kind people, perhaps even nicer and kinder than the practitioners of other approaches, and of course we want the best for our clients and are willing to work hard in such a way that clients achieve what they want, their best hopes in other words, but am I interested in the details of the client’s life? Not really! It is not my job to be interested. Indeed to be interested might actually be rather intrusive, nosey perhaps, even, at its worst, voyeuristic. My job when I am talking with people is to ask questions which invite clients into very specific ways of describing their lives, ways of describing that are associated with clients making changes. So when I ask a question and the client answers it I am not listening for the content of the response, I am listening for ‘hooks’, for possible openings to build onto, words to which I will connect my next question – the specific content is secondary. Another way of putting this is to argue that the work is going on in the client – all the worker does is to ask, hopefully good, questions. The worker’s intention therefore is never to intrude, never to seek even to understand, merely to invite.
So in Solution Focused Brief Therapy questions are, in my view, best thought of as invitations, invitations to a particular way of describing and if we are indeed going to think about questions in these terms then it might be worth spending a moment considering the way that that invitations work. Under what conditions do people accept an invitation? Surely an invitation is accepted when it is attractive, interesting and relevant. If an invitation ‘fails’ in relation to any of these criteria then it is likely that it will not be accepted, and if it that is the case then the worker will turn their gaze back onto their own practice and search for a more fitting question. A Solution Focused conversation is thus a partnership and the client’s response will invariably shape the next question; the client is being taken account of at every point. Indeed it is not unusual in my practice to say to clients ‘there is no need for you to answer any question that you would prefer not to answer – you are in charge!’.
So when we put together the worker’s intent, the idea of questions as invitations, and the focus on partnership it is perhaps not surprising that people do not experience Solution Focused questions as intrusive. This non-intrusiveness seems to be to be confirmed by one further thought. Silent sessions can work perfectly well. Even when the client says nothing out loud, if we keep asking our questions and the client answers the questions ‘internally’ the conversation, as it were, is likely to make a difference. And finally, as our friend Bill O’Hanlon was wont to say, we ‘have no right to go sight-seeing in people’s lives’. Yes indeed Bill – sight-seeing truly is intrusive.
21st January 2024